Arthur Ransome described The Importance... as the most trivial of Wilde's society plays, and the only one that produces "that peculiar exhilaration of the spirit by which we recognise the beautiful." "It is", he wrote, "precisely because it is consistently trivial that it is not ugly." Ellmann says that The Importance of Being Earnest touched on many themes Wilde had been building since the 1880s—the languor of aesthetic poses was well established and Wilde takes it as a starting point for the two protagonists. While Salome, An Ideal Husband and The Picture of Dorian Gray had dwelt on more serious wrongdoing, vice in Earnest is represented by Algy's craving for cucumber sandwiches.[n 9] Wilde told Robert Ross that the play's theme was "That we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality." The theme is hinted at in the play's ironic title, and "earnestness" is repeatedly alluded to in the dialogue, Algernon says in Act II, "one has to be serious about something if one is to have any amusement in life" but goes on to reproach Jack for 'being serious about everything'". Blackmail and corruption had haunted the double lives of Dorian Gray and Sir Robert Chiltern (in An Ideal Husband), but in Earnest the protagonists' duplicity (Algernon's "bunburying" and Worthing's double life as Jack and Ernest) is undertaken for more innocent purposes—largely to avoid unwelcome social obligations. While much theatre of the time tackled serious social and political issues, Earnest is superficially about nothing at all. It "refuses to play the game" of other dramatists of the period, for instance Bernard Shaw, who used their characters to draw audiences to grander ideals.
As a satire of society
The play repeatedly mocks Victorian traditions and social customs, marriage and the pursuit of love in particular. In Victorian times earnestness was considered to be the over-riding societal value, originating in religious attempts to reform the lower classes, it spread to the upper ones too throughout the century. The play's very title, with its mocking paradox (serious people are so because they do not see trivial comedies), introduces the theme, it continues in the drawing room discussion, "Yes, but you must be serious about it. I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them," says Algernon in Act 1; allusions are quick and from multiple angles.
Wilde managed both to engage with and to mock the genre, while providing social commentary and offering reform. The men follow traditional matrimonial rites, whereby suitors admit their weaknesses to their prospective brides, but the foibles they excuse are ridiculous, and the farce is built on an absurd confusion of a book and a baby. When Jack apologises to Gwendolen during his marriage proposal it is for not being wicked:
JACK: Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?
GWENDOLEN: I can. For I feel that you are sure to change.
In turn, both Gwendolen and Cecily have the ideal of marrying a man named Ernest, a popular and respected name at the time. Gwendolen, quite unlike her mother's methodical analysis of John Worthing's suitability as a husband, places her entire faith in a Christian name, declaring in Act I, "The only really safe name is Ernest". This is an opinion shared by Cecily in Act II, "I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest" and they indignantly declare that they have been deceived when they find out the men's real names.
Wilde embodied society's rules and rituals artfully into Lady Bracknell: minute attention to the details of her style created a comic effect of assertion by restraint. In contrast to her encyclopaedic knowledge of the social distinctions of London's street names, Jack's obscure parentage is subtly evoked. He defends himself against her "A handbag?" with the clarification, "The Brighton Line". At the time, Victoria Station consisted of two separate but adjacent terminal stations sharing the same name. To the east was the ramshackle LC&D Railway, on the west the up-market LB&SCR—the Brighton Line, which went to Worthing, the fashionable, expensive town the gentleman who found baby Jack was travelling to at the time (and after which Jack was named).
Suggested homosexual subtext
It has been argued that the play's themes of duplicity and ambivalence are inextricably bound up with Wilde's homosexuality, and that the play exhibits a "flickering presence-absence of… homosexual desire". On re-reading the play after his release from prison, Wilde said: "It was extraordinary reading the play over. How I used to toy with that Tiger Life." As one scholar has put it, the absolute necessity for homosexuals of the period to "need a public mask is a factor contributing to the satire on social disguise."
The use of the name Earnest may have been a homosexual in-joke. In 1892, three years before Wilde wrote the play, John Gambril Nicholson had published the book of pederastic poetry Love in Earnest. The sonnet Of Boys' Names included the verse: "Though Frank may ring like silver bell / And Cecil softer music claim / They cannot work the miracle / –'Tis Ernest sets my heart a-flame." The word "earnest" may also have been a code-word for homosexual, as in: "Is he earnest?", in the same way that "Is he so?" and "Is he musical?" were employed.
Sir Donald Sinden, an actor who had met two of the play's original cast (Irene Vanbrugh and Allan Aynesworth), and Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote to The Times to dispute suggestions that "Earnest" held any sexual connotations:
Although they had ample opportunity, at no time did any of them even hint that "Earnest" was a synonym for homosexual, or that "bunburying" may have implied homosexual sex. The first time I heard it mentioned was in the 1980s and I immediately consulted Sir John Gielgud whose own performance of Jack Worthing in the same play was legendary and whose knowledge of theatrical lore was encyclopaedic. He replied in his ringing tones: "No-No! Nonsense, absolute nonsense: I would have known".
A number of theories have also been put forward to explain the derivation of Bunbury, and Bunburying, which are used in the play to imply a secretive double life. It may have derived from Henry Shirley Bunbury, a hypochondriacal acquaintance of Wilde's youth. Another suggestion, put forward in 1913 by Aleister Crowley, who knew Wilde, was that Bunbury was a combination word: that Wilde had once taken a train to Banbury, met a schoolboy there, and arranged a second secret meeting with him at Sunbury.